How can you tell if your organization is a learning organization? Or perhaps the question this year is, “Is yours an innovative organization?”
Here’s a one sentence test that will answer either question, “Are you allowed to make mistakes?”
If you can’t make, identify, and acknowledge mistakes, it is impossible to learn or innovate. Laurence Prusak of NASA makes the following observation:
If you pay a substantial price for being wrong, you are rarely going to risk doing anything new and different because novel ideas and practices have a good chance of failing, at least at first. So you will stick with the tried and true, avoid mistakes, and learn very little. … What would happen if we all accepted that being wrong is as much a part of being human as being right, and especially that errors are essential to learning and knowledge creation?
A great question! How do you and your organization handle errors and mistakes? To err is human. To intentionally go beyond the disappointment and embarrassment of a mistake is to intentionally seek learning and innovation, change and growth.
Out of the ordinary
In South Central Kansas, we awoke to a winter wonderland this morning. The storm was forecasted for days in advance. Over the last two days, people were busy preparing, buying groceries, fueling vehicles, and dusting off snow shovels. We are all lured by the promise of certainty. We like to be prepared. We like maps, but a global positioning system that can pinpoint our location to within 15 feet is even better.
Yet the biggest myth we believe is that we know what comes next. Each event or performance is a moment in time. Measurements reflect the past. The challenge of leadership is to stimulate ourselves and our organizations to continually adapt, to move in new directions, to propel innovation. Julia Sloan suggests leaders can create an environment that supports change by developing five essential attributes. imagination, expanded perspective, ability to “juggle,” no control over, and desire to win.
Here are a few ideas that leaders can use to strengthen these attributes for themselves:
- Instead of saying, “No,” ask a question.
- Reflect on experiences and situations that evoke strong feelings like anger, sadness, or happiness.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings as a way to identify patterns and understand assumptions.
- Tell stories that illustrate your beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.
- Suspend judgment, slow down, look for a “surprise” – then reflect on the surprise.
I’ve been re-reading Julia Sloan’s, Learning to Think Strategically. She begins by saying that “strategic thinking is a long-term informal development process, best learned from experiences outside the work environment and supported and processed inside the work environment.”
From this I take away the need to integrate broader life experiences and encountered environments into my work. What does drinking coffee at Mojos or walking through Longwood Gardens have to do with work? What does listening to music or creating art have to do with work?
Everything. Informal does not mean accidental. Spend time observing the processes going on around you, reflecting on how each experience creates emotions and thoughts, and considering the implications for your work. What can you learn? How could the processes, observations, and experiences inform your work? Your strategy? Informal learning may be non-routine or unstructured, but we can bring awareness and curiosity along with us everywhere we go.
What did you learn outside of the office today? How will you apply it when you return?
Going for a walk this weekend, I came around a corner and was eye-to-eye with this snowman. Yes, he is mounted on a tree in the woods!
The unexpected is often surprising and unsettling. When organizations encounter the unexpected it can create significant disruption as individuals and teams work to come to terms with what has happened.
When organizations encounter the unexpected, the best leaders remain calm and level-headed. Leaders remind people of the focus of the organization. They don’t hide the facts, even when the news is bad. They observe and read the situation and people around them. They encourage people to experience their emotions, but then ask them to turn their attention outward.
Leaders shift the focus outward by engaging those around them in learning. They ask questions:
- What can we learned from this situation?
- What decisions need to be made?
- What risks are we willing to take?
- What do we not want to compromise?
- What are the most creative solutions you can brainstorm?
Being a leader is not about having a title or a position high on the organization chart. Being a leader means the ability to act with an authenticity that draws people together and motivates them to reach common goals. Being a leader is about embracing the uncertainty around every corner calmly and steadily .
“The unexpected always happens – the unexpected is indeed the only thing one can confidently expect. And almost never is it a pleasant surprise.” – Peter Drucker
Blue Line on the Race Course at Rim Rock
Yesterday we were at the State Cross Country Meet at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence. Everyone was being measured by their speed. Measured against other runners and against their personal records. I was standing at the 2 mile mark for the boys 5 kilometer race. (The challenge of mixing measurement systems is beyond the scope of this post!) The first runner in the 5A level boys race, flew passed me at the 10:10 mark, having already mastered “suicide hill”, headed for the final uphill push to the finish line.
As I walked back to the gathering point at the race conclusion, I passed through a woods with a glimpse of maples dressed in fiery fall color.
Maples at Rim Rock I
Intrigued, I turned aside and discovered this vista:
Maples at Rim Rock II
In the midst of competition with others and self, with data being analyzed in every way possible, I paused to reflect. It has become hard to resist measuring everything. After all, we can collect tons or kilograms of data and analyze it in hundreds of different ways. It is easy for information to be lost in a sea of data. In the end, what will matter is whether the information can be identified, turned into knowledge, and acted on – used by each of us and our organizations to support and execute a successful, ongoing strategy.
Gaeddert - The Plainsman
You need a story to displace a story. Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read.
– N. N. Taleb, in Prologue to The Black Swan
Idea for reflection – 12
I continue to reflect and consider how we can bring critical thinking into our organizations. As I discussed in my last post, one of the challenges with critical thinking is not allowing the questions to derail the process. Questions are only part of an environment that encourages critical thinking.
When a situation calls for critical thinking, people are often already stuck and anxious. When a situation is tense or stressful, people’s brains can shut down the thinking process and shift to fight, flight, or freeze mode. In other research done by Dr. Stellan Ohlsson on impasses, he experimented with helping people solve problems by suggesting what the solution is not and alternatively by giving clues to move people toward the solution. In both cases, only 5% of people eventually reach a resolution. His next strategy was to dive deeply into the problem and look for the root cause. This too was only marginally effective.
With insight and ideas on the line, seeking ways to improve the environment and allow people to move from stress to a reflective state of mind is most important. Here’s a short list of ideas on how to do this (these ideas come from the IPNB research):
- Encourage the person by showing appreciation or recognizing their status and role in the organization
- Increase confidence and certainty by clarifying the objectives
- Assure the person that they will be making the decisions and discovering the needed ideas
- Ask the person to simply the question to a sentence or a few words
Once the environment is calmed, and people are in a better frame of mind (brought about by reducing the load on the limbic system and frontal cortex), questions may be used to encourage the person to focus on their own process. You can begin by encouraging them, “You have good ideas. Let’s explore what your ideas are rather than think about mind.” David Rock in Your Brain at Work (p. 213) suggests the following four questions to stimulate reflection:
- If you stop and think more deeply here, do you think you know what you need to do to resolve this?
- What quiet hunches do you have about a solution, deeper inside?
- How close to a solution are you?
- Which pathway to a solution would be best to follow here?
By shifting the environment from one of stress, blame, or argument, the brain research shows that people can be more effective. As the leader or coach, you have to be willing to allow and encourage people to find their own solutions. Real change and progress are then possible.
I continue to consider what it means to crack the cognitive egg. Critical thinking is essential to creating new neural pathways. Questions are a tool to stimulate critical thinking. Questions can be trivial or complex.
In an organization, trivial questions may sound like:
- Who is in charge?
- How many departments do you have?
- How often do you have an all-hands meeting?
- What is your mission statement?
On the other hand, complex questions are meant to create dialogue and discussion. They provoke people to search for the answer and learn along the way. They stimulate other important questions. They can’t be answered once-and-for-all, but keep showing up over and over again. They require re-thinking assumptions and prior lessons.
Here are the above questions revised to increase their complexity and stimulate critical thinking:
- How does your organization define leadership? Who in your organization demonstrates those leadership characteristics?
- If you could draw a picture of how your organization divides up and shares responsibilities, what would it look like? Do you see any patterns? How has this picture changed over time?
- What are the formal and informal ways communication happens in your organization? What are the benefits and weaknesses of the formal and informal communication methods?
- How does your definition of leadership, the way you manage responsibilities, and communicate say about the core values of your organization? What is significant about the values of your organization?
A final question: How do the answers to these questions fit with what you thought the answers were yesterday?
I close with a quote:
It is easy to ask trivial questions . . . . It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions. The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and that take you somewhere. – Jerome Bruner in Understanding by Design, 2005, p. 105.
The Learning Organization has been a buzz word in companies since MIT’s Senge published The Fifth Discipline in 1990. Yet organizational learning can happen only when individuals in the system learn. And, in most organizations, the individuals in the system are adults.
In my last post I talked about the ways that our brains continue to grow and change throughout our adult lives. There are implications for adult learning environments. Adults work primarily with concepts and patterns, not facts. If we want adults to learn facts, it’s best to introduce the information in small amounts followed by a question, “How does this fit or not fit with what you already know?” Followed by more questions for reflection:
How does this change your view of the way things work?
What do you agree with?
What do you disagree with?
What new patterns do you see when you consider the new information?
Does this make you think of a story or something you’ve experienced?
Those who already practice critical thinking may recognize some of these questions. Critical thinking and reflection are what allow adults to learn, to grow new neurons, to lay down new neural pathways and reinforce old ones. Shaking up our cognitive pathways allows us to continue to learn and grow . . . allowing our organizations to be learning organizations. Let’s make sure our learning opportunities are appropriately scrambled and not all in one basket.